‘Yes, North can simply be a cardinal point. But for me it’s also a concept that can stir imagination and creativity.’
Edited by Kirsty Gunn and Gail Low
Published by The Voyage Out Press
The Flicker of North
Duncan McLean & Kenny Taylor
We’ve been invited to discuss the north as a place, both real and imagined. If you don’t mind, I want to call it the North. My notion is that there’s a place formed by ‘northness’, defined by ‘northness’, consisting of ‘northness.’ And you and I are both in it.
It would have been good to have had a blether with you before introducing such an idea, to make sure you don’t think it entirely daft, but so far it’s been impossible to talk. Who’d have thought it would be so hard in this day and age to catch each other on the phone! I will just have to launch our conversation with this brief contribution, and hope the words connect even if our mobile providers can’t.
A conversation of what kind? We won’t know till we talk! I’ll go first, will I? You can’t answer that, because you won’t even see the question till I send it to you, which I won’t do till I get to the end of whatever I’m going to write here. Let’s call it 700 words, two pages—it’s good to have an arbitrary target. Many years ago, I drove right across the USA. Every morning I’d look at the atlas and find a town 3 or 4 or even 500 miles west with an interesting name: Chunky, Mississippi; Uncertain, Texas; Truth or Consequences, New Mexico. And I’d drive till I got there and find a motel for the night. I had to have an arbitrary target, you see, otherwise, why stop? In the States, you can just keep driving forever. Not like here in Orkney: twenty minutes in any direction and you get to the sea. That’ll stop you.
At first glance, part of the reason it’s been hard for me to communicate much seems simple: ‘notspots.’ During chunks of this spring and summer I’ve been working in some of the most trackless country I know. One of a team surveying birds, mammals and vegetation in the wilds of north Sutherland, I’ve often been far from both roads and reliable phone signals.
Your schedule and mine have meant that there seem to be only a few days—or hours—when we might have had a chance to chat. My hiking along a mountain slope or venturing into the boglands just adds to the difficulty at a time when we might otherwise have spoken.
Like that day when I was inland from Loch Eriboll, going towards Foinaven on a day of sunshine and wader calls, when the signal evaporated faster than the dew on the deer grass. We’d managed a quick phone rendezvous mid-morning, and I suggested that we could speak later, before you needed to go to the shop. Seemed simple—a good way to converse while I paused for some thermos coffee. But long before the appointed talk time, I’d entered the valleys and crags of no-speak. So I’ll tell you a little of what happened while we failed to converse; what I saw and what I didn’t see.
There were pools among the bog mosses when I reached a high plateau. I could see the Pentland Firth a few miles off, and a blue-green smudge on the horizon that I took to be the hills of Hoy. The Orkney Islands. Laser flashes might have made a connection between us right then. But signalling in Morse would have defeated me, while you, of course, were in Kirkwall, not Hoy. So my attention soon drifted to the closer sight and sound of a greenshank flying a couple of hundred metres away. Then another veered in from the east, diving at the first bird and chasing it, fast and low, over the bog and beyond. Once it had seen off the intruder, this second bird returned. Rising above the sky-mirroring lochans, it began to call. And call. The notes fluted loud and softer and louder with shifts of breeze.
I kept it in view as it ascended, cricking my neck back to watch, then arching further to catch its shape in binoculars and hold the silhouette in focus. After more than a minute, it stalled its high rise and plummeted, steep and fast, to reach the ground in seconds. In the times when I’ve thought of it since, I know that my interpretation of what it was doing in that airspace could be wrong. That the greenshank’s communication and signalling is not my language, though I think I understand some of it, that its place is not my home, much though I relish going there. And though my image of your home isles is more—much more—than that smudge on the northeast horizon, and though I’ve visited many times over many decades, still I wonder how much I actually know of Orkney and the wider North. How much I’m projecting my own preconceptions on the screen of the cool blue horizon. But I’ll leave that for later as we see what place or idea takes us further along the turns of this conversation.
You have the ability to describe your work and make your readers envy you, wishing they were up on those trackless moors watching the duel of the greenshanks. Are you sure that really is work? Ach well, I suppose there was a painfully early start, the bog was claggy on your boots, and a million midgies showed up to keep you company. Oh, any number of downsides. It all comes round to what we choose to focus on, which parts of the working life we select to present in our prose. I could, for instance, suggest something of my working day by describing me throwing open the shop door first thing to see St Magnus Cathedral across the street, sandstone glowing red in the morning light. I could go on to recount a conversation with an excited Italian restaurateur, visiting Orkney on holiday and tasting Westray Wife cheese for the first time. And I could describe a late-afternoon delivery run in my van, out past the standing stones and Maes Howe, to deliver a case of good red wine to a restaurant in Stromness, named The Hamnavoe after George Mackay Brown’s classic fictional version of the town.
On the other hand, I could also show me in a sweat and pretty much wabbit by 9am, after the arrival of two pallets of wine from our importers, a couple of tons in weight, all of which has to be carried in by hand through our inconvenient back store, checked and stacked.
A few months ago a friend asked me a question that I couldn’t answer at the time, and has been gnawing away at me ever since. The question was, what do you like about Orkney? I couldn’t think of anything to say. I know what tourists and other visitors like: the landscape, the dozens of archaeological sites, the birdlife. I know what they like because they tell me. Sometimes they tell me because they’re bursting with excitement and want to spill it out. Other times they tell me because I ask them.
A typical conversation in my shop over the four or five tourist months runs like this:
Duncan: So, are you here for long?
Visitor: We’re here two weeks, we love it.
Duncan: You’re in Orkney for two weeks? Great!
Visitor: No, we’re in Scotland for two weeks: Glasgow, Skye, Lallybroch, and now Orkney for two days. Then we go to—what’s it called?— Edinburgh, and then home.
Duncan: And where’s home?
Visitor: The United States of America.
Duncan: Aye, I got that, but where exactly?
Visitor: Roanoke, Virginia.
Duncan: I’ve been there!
Visitor: You have? No one’s ever been to Roanoke! It’s dull as all heck! What were you doing there?
Duncan: I was staying with a friend in the Blue Ridge Mountains, and we were starting to get cabin fever, so we drove to Roanoke to see that terrible Mel Gibson film, Braveheart. That wasn’t a pretty sight. Tell you what though, those mountains were spectacular, and the landscape around there was just beautiful. As we drove along you could see eagles circling up in the sky… amazing.
So this is how I know what the tourists like about Orkney, conversations carried out all summer long, across the cheese counter.
But what about someone who lives here, or lives anywhere? Can they really ‘like’ their place? It’s not a Facebook post of a friend’s new pushbike or relationship status or political opinion. You can’t just get up in the morning, look out the window, and click a ‘like’ button to express mild and barely-considered approval of what you see. Those kinds of ‘likes’ are about reminding a far-flung friend you exist and are aware of them, maybe that you’re supportive of whatever they’re doing or buying or thinking. But that’s not what goes on in your own mind when you look out your window or walk down the road. That’s more likely to be a complex of plusses and negatives:
—Blue sky and sun, that’s a good start. But bushes leaning north-eastwards and cloud out beyond Hoy, so maybe a bit of rain coming in later.
—Small cruise ship anchored off Stromness. Busy day for the town, good for the shops and cafes and pubs.
—Still can’t believe that guy got planning permission to build that house down by the shore: does not fit in at all. Still, have to admit it’s quite modern and interesting, and anyway it’ll all be gone in a few years with the sea rising!
—Oh, there goes Billy down the road in his John Deere 6125. As usual, fifty miles an hour, on his phone, and his wee boy bouncing about the cab. Is it true what they say that tractors don’t have to obey the Highway Code? That they’re agricultural vehicles so can do what they like? Certainly seems to be here … Like taxi drivers in Kirkwall: no seat belts and wrong way round the roundabout: they can, because they’re taxis, it’s the law! (So they say.)
—Jesus, and now that bloody hen harrier’s back, cruising along and back the length of the garden, peering down into the bushes. I know what you’re after, you bastard, it’s the baby blackbirds, but you’re not getting them, I like blackies singing in the garden.
Here, hold my laptop: I’m off to throw some stones at a bird of prey. What is that? Is that liking Orkney? It doesn’t feel like it to me. It just feels like living Orkney.
I feel the weight of your plusses and minuses, including the sweat of heaving heavy boxes—however tantalising their contents—at times when many of us might be doing nothing more strenuous than lifting a morning cup of coffee; the tractors careening down streets; the anti clockwise taxi drivers. And the hen harrier threatening to silence the garden blackbird. Much though I mourn the persecution of harriers on the killing fields of the grouse-moored uplands, that’s worrying. But to be honest, (sorry to be an anorak, though I do have the relevant jacket) that sounds much more like normal behaviour for a sparrowhawk than a harrier. A few years ago, a sparrowhawk slew the blackbird that liked to whistle the ‘da-da-da-DA’ phrase from Beethoven’s Ninth at the gable ends of my roof. I’ve not heard that whistler’s like again. Household birds apart, your comments also make me think about the balance sheet of emotions in how I relate to my own home place, on the Black Isle. I could say that I’m writing this at my kitchen table, where I often work, looking across a few miles, beyond the surrounding farmland, to the corries of Ben Wyvis, wondering when the first snows will come. But I’m travelling backwards at the moment, returning north to Inverness on an overcrowded train (as is normal on this line) and both ‘liking’ (there’s that word again) and loathing the increasing popularity of the Highlands to visitors. There’s a guy squashed-in beside me who’s dressed as superman, though his face is painted in zombie tones of fungal green and congealed-blood red. He and the Aussies across the passage are swapping tales of their trails and travels. Think he’s on his way to a stag party, while the girl in the wizard’s (not witch’s) hat down the carriage—who knows?
All a contrast to the Black Isle, highlighting how part of what I’ve always relished about life there is the relative quietness, and the sense of un-crowded space. Space to notice small things, such as subtle sounds in the woods behind my house … the way the click of a pine-cone on a track could mean there’s a crossbill feeding in the tree overhead. How else can I notice, not only the day, but also the very hour of autumn when the first skeins of pink-footed geese arrow-in from Iceland to glean the stubbles after harvest? The way my children might explore the woods, and later, dig full-on, adrenalin-boosting downhill mountain bike trails among the conifers, without anyone really noticing that they, or the bike tracks, were there.
Those are some of the plusses, as are the overlapping communities of interest here, such as among those of us who help to promote live performances of music, drama, poetry and more in small local venues. I know that’s no different to how things work in countless other places across Scotland—across many other parts of the world, perhaps.
But it’s part of what I value about ‘living the Black Isle’, as you do living Orkney.
It can also be one of the minuses; the way, for example. that communities of interest can rapidly circle wagons when faced with perceived threat and then fire at supposed adversaries in the parish. That happened some years ago, when there was a chance of community ownership of old woodland nearby. The woodland was part of what was classed as a farm, but had barely been worked as such in recent times. But that categorisation was enough for the community of farming interest (both practitioners and relatives) to react as if the sky would fall if anyone other than one of their own were to have a say in how the woodland was used and managed.
The bitterness and division engendered by what should have been a straightforward and positive process was almost frightening. In some ways, it taught me a great deal about how quickly group behaviour can turn from friendly interactions to something much more sinister. It also showed how there’s no straightforward way of defining what a particular place means to people living there, let alone to visitors. Where I thrill to the sounds of the wild geese overhead, as Neil Gunn did when he lived not far from here a few decades ago, a farmer might see a threat to winter-sown crops. Where I see an average stretch of Black Isle coast, my nearest neighbour down the track (not long deceased, and sorely missed) would think of possibilities for outwitting water bailiffs and catching salmon. Come to think of it, that chimes with some of Neil Gunn’s writing. Hugh Miller—a son of Cromarty, just a few miles away, both wrote of the local scene in the early 19th century in ways that I relish, especially in his close observations of wildlife—a relative rarity in his work—and people he knew on the peninsula. Those meld in his description in ‘My Schools and Schoolmasters’ of when a party of ‘herd-boys’ had stormed a humble-bee’s nest on the side of the old chapel-brae, and, digging inwards along the narrow winding earth passage, they at length came to a grinning human skull, and saw the bees issuing thick from out a round hole at its base—the foramen magnum. The wise little workers had actually formed their nest within the hollow of the head, once occupied by the busy brain; and their spoilers more scrupulous than Samson of old, who seems to have enjoyed the meat brought forth out of the eater, and the sweetness extracted from the strong, left in very great consternation their honey all to themselves.
Elsewhere (and I don’t have the book to hand) Hugh Miller also talked of his dislike of the long miles of heath and pines and bogland on the Black Isle, now shrunk to fragments since his day, which I’d love to see restored. If perceptions of place could be GPS overlays, I suspect there would be as many as there are individual inhabitants. So I know that my perceptions of Orkney, though shaped by many visits to many different islands and influenced by George Mackay Brown, Viking sagas and things such as the tunes and songs of the Drevers and the Wrigley sisters, are simply the mix I’ve been able to make mine. Billy in the John Deere might well think me daft.
But I’m minded to take a different track now. That’s part of the pleasure of essays as a writer or reader, of course (if, as you say, this staccato communication is indeed such a thing): the way you’re never sure—maybe don’t want to be sure—where the next few sentences might lead. Casting back, it’s like moving through the kind of blanket bog I was describing earlier. You think you see the direction of travel, but it’s impossible, assuming you don’t want to risk getting up to the oxters—or worse—in sodden moss or bog pools—to go in a straight line. Some of that, I assure you, is hard work, since making a mistake when you’re out there alone in cloud so low you can barely see your feet (as happened to me a few weeks after that greenshank encounter), could be life threatening. At least essays, whatever the barbs literary critics might throw, might be safer.
Another thing I can tell you that I often see from this part of the peninsula is liners. Cruise ships by the score, docking across the Firth at Invergordon to disgorge tourists in thousands to be taken in coaches across the Highland mainland. It’s hard to imagine how such numbers could descend on somewhere of such modest size and narrow streets as Kirkwall. Here, the similarly small town where the cruise passengers land won’t be high on their wish lists for selfies against a northern backdrop. But the hulk of the defunct aluminium smelter and the oil rigs parked inshore could say more about that place and the people who live and work there than the photo opportunities they’ll seek elsewhere. I’m sure that many of those travellers, between the diversions of shopping, are more minded to share images taken with an old castle behind, or Loch Ness, or maybe the place where both castle and loch could be caught in one frame (plenty of potential for ‘likes’ there). They’ll have journeyed in hopes of glimpsing ‘Nessie’, that prime economic asset of the Highlands and as improbable—and potent—as the tooth fairy or Santa Claus.
Santa, reindeer, north: now that last word is one that has excited me since childhood. Still does, even though the ways I think of it could be as much to do with my imagination—and the words and images of writers and northern artists whose work I relish—as with the realities of life and land beyond where I now live.
North: unless you’re standing precisely at the pole, there’s always a north. And from where I’m sitting, Orkney is part of that ‘north’.
Superman has left the train, by the way, but the wizard is still aboard.
The idea of the North appeals to me too. I have gazed reverentially at William Heinesen’s old house in Torshavn, and watched Mairi Boine sing at mild blue midnight, the jagged peaks of Lofoten behind her. (By the way, I never made it over to Lofoten; if I had, I’d’ve had to have made one of my randomly generated trips to Å at the southern end of the archipelago. Of course, I would then have been obliged to find the legendary lost city of Z in the Brazilian jungle …)
So tourists are attracted to places by fictional animals like Nessie, and fictionalised versions of real people like Mary Queen of Scots, and fictional locations from Outlander. But what attracts and excites you and me is just as fictional: the notion that ‘North’ is something more than a relative geographical description; the idea that George Mackay Brown’s fantasies describe an Orkney that ever really existed; the wish-fulfilment that Sigrid Undset’s politics represent the values of far-northerners better than Knut Hamsun’s.
It’s all projection, isn’t it? ‘Imagined Spaces’ is exactly the right phrase: we invent a space or place in our minds that we want to believe in, and then set out to find it. We travel solo on foot to some wilderness free of human contamination (other than ourselves, who are not contaminants, of course, but neutral observers.) Or we go as a family to campsites in Normandy for that authentic French countryside experience, the back of the car full of iPads and Rice Crispies to keep the kids happy. Or maybe we hole up to work on a draft of a novel in North Ronaldsay or Graemsay because the Mainland of Orkney is just not Orcadian enough—a more concentrated essence of Orkney is required to steep in than the complex, diluted reality of the Mainland.
Which brings me to a surprising place where I find myself in sympathy with the liner passengers. Most of them, in my experience, don’t come on a cruise in order to visit a particular imagined place. It’s the travelling that’s the important thing. They’re not travelling TO anywhere; rather they are voyaging THROUGH a series of places. It could be half a dozen coastal towns from Portsmouth to Oban to Kirkwall to Invergordon. Or it could be northern seas from the North Sea to the Baltic to the North Atlantic.
Cynical and weary tourist industry workers claim that the cruise liner passengers often have no idea where they are. To which I reply, So what? Travelling, hopefully, is better than arriving. These liner folk travel day and night, on they go, always moving, pausing only briefly to draw breath in a town, yet another town, at the end of a pier, at a mooring out in the bay. Some come on land by footbridge or tender and spend a few hours—‘Where are we?’—wherever they are. Others choose to stay on the boat, sleeping or eating or gazing out at the shore: ‘There’s a town there, but I’m not going to it. Mustn’t get hooked in, must keep moving. I hate the stops, love the journey.’
When the shore visitors walk or bus back to the harbour, there’s a whole row of those ‘How was your experience?’ signs. You know, the ones you pass once you get through airport security, with the sad face, the neutral face and the happy face. There they are, a dozen or so signs lined up, all with, HOW WAS YOUR ORKNEY? in big bold letters. And as they go through, the visitors have to punch one or other face to register the extent to which they’ve liked their hours here. Every cruise port has such a set-up, apparently. And the good news for us is, Orkney gets more smiley faces punched than any other place in the UK.
The tourist board are actually planning to install a whole series of those punchy faces across the key sites of Orkney: HOW WAS YOUR SKARA BRAE? HOW WAS YOUR OLD MAN? HOW WAS YOUR BETTY CORRIGAL’S GRAVE? Only then will they be able to accurately assess the extent to which these various attractions are realising their potential in the tourist economy. Any which are found to be pulling less than their weight risk demolition or at least demotion from the tourist brochures to the history books.
All of which fantastical nonsense leads me to conclude that it is time for me to draw my part of this conversation to a close. By rights at this point I should assess the success of my contribution and punch myself in the face, which I may well do after rereading what I’ve written.
But before that I will finish by quoting lines from another Orcadian writer, Edwin Muir, which pop into my mind unbidden and seem relevant. In life he went south, but in his work he often came back north. Whatever the direction, there was always restless movement. Rather than spaces, imagined or real, there was the journey, ‘The Way’:
Friend, I have lost the way.
The way leads on.
Is there another way?
The way is one.
I must retrace the track.It’s lost and gone.
Back, I must travel back!
None goes there, none.
Little did I reckon, when we began this correspondence, that a cruise passenger could lead me, through your words and reflections, into the heart of Nordic literature. Nor that this would make me reconsider ways in which some of its most famous writers raise questions about the relationship between art and artist, or how much of ourselves we project in concepts of place, including ‘north’ and the notion that this is anything more, as you say, than a relative geographical description.
The passenger disembarking at Kirkwall, in the company of perhaps thousands of other fellow travellers, morphs in my mind to a solitary figure and a much smaller ferry. The place is an island in north Norway, where a wooden jetty juts into dark waters. No one is there to meet the traveller, who walks towards a wooden house near the shore. The boat leaves. In a while—maybe days, maybe months from now—the traveller will go back aboard the ferry and depart, never to return. The wanderer’s name could be Knud Pedersen, could be Hamsun. But that’s my projection, my personal imagining. Because I think my name is in there too. Yes, North can simply be a cardinal point. But for me (and for you, I think, through both your home place and your knowledge of writers such as Heinesen, which suggests an interest not typical of many Scottish writers, editors or publishers) it’s also a concept that can stir imagination and creativity. There’s something more than the simple law of averages that means that some great writers, past and present, have come from northern countries.
In that context, I’ll admit that I wrestle with my enduring admiration for the power of Knut Hamsun’s prose. I was introduced to his work long ago, by a lover in Norway who gave me a copy of Pan. Its opening sentence, about the Nordland summer’s eternal day, can still haunt me. So do passages where the words seem to sing, especially in Norwegian, such as: ‘Sommernetter og stille vann og uendelig stille skoger’ (Summer nights and quiet water and endless quiet woods). Then he adds: ‘No calls, no footfalls on the roads; it seemed my heart was full of dark wine.’
As Thomas McGuane, writing about ways people relate to nature has said, Scandinavians differentiate between loneliness and solitude as a matter of course. I recognise that distinction, both in my own life and in Hamsun—the way he can raise a glass of that dark wine, but also, with his twists of voice and disdain for convention, throw it down to swig an entirely different liquor. Not least in Pan and Mysteries as well as the better-known Hunger, some of his work from the close of the 19th century still seems surprisingly modern. That includes, as Isaac Bashevis Singer said, his subjectivity, fragmentariness, use of flashbacks and his lyricism. Those comments are all the more remarkable because Singer wrote principally in Yiddish, while fellow Nobel laureate Hamsun spent his final years as a prominent Nazi sympathiser in occupied Norway.
Nina Frang Høyum of the Norwegian National Museum describes Hamsun as ‘a national cultural trauma’, but adds that his relevance is not only in his greatness as an artist, but also in how he can lead to debate about the relationship between fiction and society and the role of art and the artist. I know also that Sigrid Undset’s life and art was very different to Hamsun’s. Vocal in condemnation of the Nazis though the 1930s, she had to flee to Sweden, then the US, when Norway was invaded in 1940. Her eldest son died at Gausdal in the spring of that year, fighting for the resistance. When she returned to Lillehammer after the war, Sigrid published nothing more. She had earlier sent her Nobel medal to raise funds for Finland in the Winter War. Hamsun had sent his to Goebbels.
So, as you say, ‘it’s all projection, isn’t it?’ in perception of a space and place—and perhaps the art—we want to believe in. But what you say to conclude that observation seems crucial: that we then set out to find that imagined space. I know that describes what has always motivated me to think about, then seek, northern places. What—in addition to the skill of their writing—still draws me to Hamsun and Undset, Per Petterson, Lars Saabye Christensen and poets such as Olav Hauge. Which, prompted by your recent words, will lead me to seek more of the work of William Heinesen, who seems adept at moving from the particular of small-town Torshavn to the universal and back again. So—thanks for sharing ideas through a chunk of this year, where the subjectivity, fragmentariness and flashbacks have been part of the fun.
I’ve been to Å, by the way—on Vesterålen, so a bit to the north of the one you mention on Lofoten. It seems that Norway has seven of them, which could certainly be the start of a journey, either through the wider country, the whole alphabet, or only to places named without consonants.
I wish you well with the travellers who visit and for ventures in writing and publishing.
For me, North still flickers on the screen, still lures. I appreciate how you—and I hope both of us—have added some new frames to the projected story.
Postscript: in further correspondence beyond this essay, the writers discovered that Sigrid Undset had called at Kirkwall on her return voyage from wartime exile in the US to Norway in 1945. She seems to have disembarked, since a copy of one of her books, The Longest Years, signed by her with a dedication and thanks to Winifred Clouston, widow of Orkney-based novelist and antiquarian J S Clouston—who had died the previous year—had recently been offered for sale by a local bookseller. Kenny is now the keeper of that book. The coincidence of Sigrid Undset coming ashore in Kirkwall and the track of some of the ideas in the essay is still a source of some amazement for the writers, and may even suggest future paths of inquiry.
Imagined Spaces, edited by Kirsty Gunn and Gail Low is published by The Voyage Out Press, priced £14.99.